There’s a great Seinfeld episode in which Jerry, entangled in a sexual romp, laments that the penis has no brain. It’s a definitively Seinfeld wisdom because it seems flippant but, in fact, contains an unpleasant truth of recurring validity. It also displays a very New York attitude by recognizing a human failure but, at the same time, surrendering totally to it.
And there seems to be an ever-expanding list of New York-based men caught in priapic trespasses in which the brain appears to have been subsidiary to the mindless member: Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and now Eric Schneiderman. All of them destroyed at the heights of their careers.
(I should in all fairness say that there is no equivalence in these cases, they display different degrees and types of alleged or admitted bad behavior.)
One of the many things that these guys didn’t consider when they dropped their pants was how far, collectively and individually, they would help to sustain the stereotype of New York depravity that many parts of the rest of the nation just love to believe in.
This view goes back a long way and is often evoked in another word used to blacken the history of New York: Gotham, in which the city appears as the modern spawn of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In Anglo-Saxon the name Gotham means “Goat’s Town.” In the Middle Ages it became code for a place where the citizens were as dumb as goats—there was a slim 16th-century book published in London, The Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotam, in which a whole cast of simpletons are the source of ridicule. Of course, the other goat simile is excessive male sexual energy, as in “he’s as horny as a goat.”
Eventually the name crossed the pond early in the nineteenth century when Washington Irving attached it to New York in essays that imagined a history in which it was “the wonder loving city of Gotham.” (This should not be confused with Batman’s occupation of Gotham City in DC Comics that dates from 1940.)
New York did not need to wait much longer for a real, racier history than would outstrip any author’s imagination. The city developed all the characteristics of cosmopolitan port cities—the entrepôts—as they grew with industrialization. And, like London, Hamburg, Macau, and Shanghai it naturally attracted all the vices that follow mercantile trading and money, including political corruption and rampant prostitution.
Puritans never have much luck in trying to clean up such places. In New York in the 1830s there was, for example, the work of Sylvester Graham, an evangelical crusader from Philadelphia who believed that debauchery could be avoided by following a diet of whole wheat bread, fresh fruit, and vegetables.
His followers opened a male-only boarding house with a regimen of cold baths and vegetarian meals. Graham proclaimed that male orgasms were self-destructive—that ejaculation weakened the life force by losing vital semen. (An idea later lampooned in the figure of General Jack Ripper in the movie Doctor Strangelove.) Those of Graham’s adherents who worked on Wall Street were warned that the gratuitous waste of sperm could lead to financial ruin.
To say the least, that idea had few followers. Wall Street thrived and new, vast fortunes were created to fuel what Mark Twain dubbed The Gilded Age in which the island of Manhattan began to seem to some like a new Babylon, reckless, shameless, and speeding toward decadence.
An apocalyptic novel, The Destruction of Gotham, by Joaquin Miller, pictured this flourishing of opulence (and sin) ending in a Great Fire like the one that swept London in 1666, appearing as an act of divine retribution for “the thousands of filthy things which man in his drunken greed had allowed to accumulate on the face of the island.”
Miller’s effort was just as futile as Graham’s. Gotham was bent on an irredeemable pursuit of wealth and pleasure.
Perhaps inevitably, this riotous demi-monde produced one event that provided the rest of America with a definitive picture of the kind of depravity that they had always suspected was common among the richest and most powerful of the New York elite. And it became a kind of founding scandal to inform how the city would thereafter be regarded from afar by those who never actually ever went there.
At its center was Stanford White, the go-to architect and interior decorator of his day, extravagantly mustached like a vaudeville villain and a lecher who designed a grand townhouse on West 24th street with specific features for the seduction of young women, among them a room lined with mirrors and another equipped with a velvet-cushioned swing.
On June 25, 1906, White was enjoying a musical show in the roof garden theatre at Madison Square Garden, the neoclassical building that had helped to make his name. The final number of the show, I Could Love a Million Girls, was just under way when a Pittsburgh magnate, Harry Thaw, approached White and killed him with three shots from a pistol at close range.
Thaw’s wife was a celebrated beauty of the day, the actress Evelyn Nesbit. Years earlier she had been seduced by White, one of a long line of young women snared in White’s townhouse, where many of them, barely clad and (like Nesbit) often plied with wine, were placed on the velvet swing and displayed themselves for White’s entertainment.
Thaw suspected, wrongly, that his wife was still involved with White.
Thaw’s trial was a sensation, the first of many to be billed as “The Trial of the Century.” It ended in a hung jury. In a second trial Thaw pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity (he had a history of mental instability) and was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. Seven years later he was released.
We have had to wait until the second decade of a new century to experience any scandals that come close to the impact of that one. But the serial sins that began to be exposed in 2008 when the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, was found to have spent as much as $80,000 for the services of prostitutes over several years, are not only as sensational, they are having far more profound social consequences.
To many people, the Spitzer case was like discovering that Eliot Ness, the nemesis of Al Capone, was secretly addicted to whorehouses. As New York’s attorney general (and like his now embattled successor, Eric Schneiderman) Spitzer had earned widespread popular acclaim by pursuing white collar crime, being particularly aggressive toward Wall Street. He carried the same crusading zeal into the governorship—and was then destroyed by what seemed like an inexplicable and arrogant belief in being untouchable.
The same kind of arrogance was seen in Weinstein, probably the most egregious of all these cases, who ran a black ops campaign against women he feared might find the courage to expose him. And it was eventually the courage of victims, initially in the case of Ailes and Fox News, who revealed a predatory culture in the Fox newsroom, that has since encouraged others to come forward and change the whole response to abusive males.
However, the Schneiderman case introduces a new dimension to the discussion of sexual abuse—specifically to the public understanding of rough sex at a time when a piece of erotic drivel like 50 Shades of Grey can serve preposterously as educational material.
In response to charges in the New Yorker of choking and slapping women without their permission during sex (and, allegedly, while drunk) Schneiderman said he was “engaged in role-playing and other consensual activity” and had not assaulted anyone.
Essentially this is the classic defense of claiming that what goes on in private among consenting adults, whether straight or gay or in whatever numbers, should not in this enlightened age be regarded as criminal.
But, of course, the critical question is one of consent.
The Marquis de Sade, patron saint of sexual libertines, did not set clear guidelines on how to safely combine sex and pain. He assumed that the participants could decide that for themselves. And, indeed, in the wake of the Schneiderman revelations some of those who like rough sex have said that the rules are simple—participants should agree beforehand what is permissible, any partner should be able to stop the action if it becomes unacceptable, and nobody should ever be forced to participate against their will.
We are probably now going to see how that plays out in a courtroom.
Meanwhile the new scandals of Gotham City are once more making many people in the rest of the country feel superior to a place that they don’t seem ever able to accept as superior, even though in so many cultural ways it is bound to be simply by means of its position and wealth. It’s what Sen. Ted Cruz articulated during his presidential campaign when he spoke in a derogative manner about “New York values.”
This is the kind of prejudice often used to validate the moral superiority (and political convictions) of the hinterlands while being at the same time shamelessly hypocritical. Just think Alabama and Judge Roy Moore.
However, if there is one immediately redeeming feature of this saga it is that the sins of New York are being so unblinkingly exposed by the journalists of New York—particularly at The New Yorker and The New York Times.
In fact, this perpetual combat is one of the tensions that helps to make the city such an intense place to practice journalism. No matter how lofty the power and position of a miscreant, they know (and perhaps enjoy as much as fear) that there is always likely to be a reporter somewhere in the undergrowth picking up the scent of their activities, patiently finding and cultivating sources, assembling the witnesses and victims, moving steadily toward an inevitable exposure.
There is nothing new in this. Muckraking journalism was established in Gotham long ago as an honorable profession. In the early 20th century an epic piece of investigative journalism by Ida Tarbell, in McClure’s magazine, brought down the Standard Oil price-fixing trust, and similar investigations for the same magazine by Lincoln Steffens busted open big city crime rackets across the country.
New York was, and remains, a wonderful town.